Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping boat arrivals one of his five key priorities after the number of migrants arriving on the south coast of England soared to more than 45,000 last year, up 500% in the last two years.
The new legislation will mean anyone who arrives this way will be prevented from claiming asylum and deported either back to their homeland or to so-called safe third countries.
The Refugee Council charity said the law would leave genuine refugees “locked up in a state of misery” and compared the government’s approach to “authoritarian nations” such as Russia which have walked away from international human rights treaties.
Interior minister Suella Braverman suggested to parliament that without changes to the law, 100 million asylum seekers could qualify for protection in Britain, but didn’t provide supporting evidence for that figure.
“For a government not to respond to waves of illegal migrants breaching our borders would be to betray the will of the people we were elected to serve,” Braverman said.
The legislation will enable the detention of illegal arrivals without bail, or judicial review, within the first 28 days of detention until they can be removed, she said, and those entering the country illegally would no longer be able to use anti-slavery laws to try to block removal. Only children, people who are considered too ill to fly or those at a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm” will be allowed to claim asylum in Britain.
Just under two-thirds of those who arrive on small boats are currently granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection, Home Office figures show.
While the number of applications for asylum in the UK hit a 20-year high of nearly 75,000 in 2022, it is still below the European Union average. Germany received more than 240,000 asylum applications last year.
Opposition parties and charities have questioned whether the latest plans would be any more effective than previous attempts in the last decade to deter people from making the crossing.
The opposition Labour Party home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said the new proposals were a “con” that would not stop the small-boat arrivals, and described Sunak’s latest reform proposals as yet another “Groundhog Day”.
Last year, Britain agreed a deal to send tens of thousands of migrants more than 4,000 miles away (6,400 km) to Rwanda.
The first deportation flight was blocked by an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. London’s High Court then ruled it lawful in December, but opponents are seeking to appeal that verdict.
Braverman said she was in discussions with the European human rights court to halt the use of injunctions to prevent the future deportation of migrants.
The new law will introduce an annual cap on the number of refugees Britain will be able to settle via legal routes, she said, without providing details on how that would work.